The most shattering aspect of the video interview in which Mark Mullins describes his and his partner Helen’s struggle to survive acute poverty is the knowledge that a few months after it was recorded, both were dead, having killed themselves in an “apparent suicide pact”.
The video, filmed at a Coventry soup kitchen run by a Salvation Army charity worker, is a humbling, devastating chronicle of a tragedy foretold: a couple whose urgent and complex social care needs were seemingly ignored by a glacial welfare system which both baffled and terrified them, and may ultimately have crushed them.
Once a week, Mark told the interviewer, they would undertake a 12-mile round trip on foot to the food kitchen. The free vegetables they brought back with them to would be made into seven days worth of soup, cooked on a single gas ring set up in the one habitable room in the house in which they lived. As Mark puts it, with what now looks like extraordinary understatement:
“We’re living hand to mouth.”
No formal verdict of suicide has been issued in this case; the police describe the deaths (pending toxicology tests) as “unexplained”. The wider factors contributing to the tragedy are, one suspects, manifold. Acutely vulnerable people like the Mullins will have “slipped through the net” before, and will do so again.
But it is hard not to see how the risk of tragedies like this occurring might be increasing. Austerity is rattling through those parts of the welfare state from which the Mullins sought help. Benefits are being cut, advice and advocacy services savaged, housing support diminished, and mental health and social care services more tightly rationed. For many vulnerable people, engaging with this shrinking and more punitive welfare apparatus, in a climate of relentless media attacks on “benefit scroungers,” is an increasingly stressful and fearful proposition.
As David Gooding, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau manager in the Mullins’ home town of Bedworth (the Bedworth CAB is also facing cuts) told the Coventry Evening Telegraph:
“Cuts in public funding are leaving more and more vulnerable people, particularly those with mental health problems, without a lifeline as services that they have previously relied on are cut back or lost completely.”
So what happens to vulnerable people when the “lifeline” is withdrawn? In some cases, the consequence is personal catastrophe.
Guardian reader Ally Smith sent me some newspaper reports of people who had been apparently driven to suicide as a result of cuts, or fear of cuts. Some involve people who worked in public services (and I will come back to these in a future post). Most involve often vulnerable people who have been plunged into despair by benefit cuts, work capability assessments, or fear of the consequences of either. Here are a selection:
• Richard Sanderson, 44, an unemployed helicopter pilot of Southfields in London, who stabbed himself twice in the heart in May. He had been informed that his family faced a £30 a week cut in housing benefit and he feared this would leave his family homeless. At the inquest, the coroner noted:
“The fact his [Sanderson’s] housing benefit was about to be cut and the family would be at risk of having nowhere to live, and being ordered to give up his training course because of the Job Centre’s rules, would appear to be especially poignant and tragic.”
• Paul Willcoxson, 33, of Corby, Northants, was according to the suicide note he left behind, worried about benefit cuts when he hung himself in April.
• Poet and writer Paul Reekie, 48, killed himself at his home in Edinburgh in June 2010. His death led to the setting up of the Black Triangle Campaign. He left no suicide note but friends wrote a letter to the chancellor George Osborne claiming that two letters Reekie had carefully laid out on his table indicated why he had taken his own life:
“One was notifying him that his housing benefit had been stopped. The other was notifying him that his incapacity benefit had been stopped.”
• Elaine Christian, 57, of Hull, was worried, according to reports of an inquest in July, about a meeting to assess her disability benefits. She was found drowned in a drain with ten self-inflicted cuts to her wrist and she had taken painkillers. Although she left a suicide note, an open verdict was recorded. Her husband told the inquest:
“She [Elaine] was worried about the assessment, but was never one to complain.”
Do cuts kill? Perhaps all we can say with confidence, on the basis of these illustrative reports, is that they can be a significant contributory factor, alongside unemployment, personal debt, and mental illness. The removal or reduction of support services for the most vulnerable cannot help. Stress and harship caused by benefit assessments perceived to be unfairly punitive also appears regularly in these grim accounts.
I’ve not seen any attempts to measure the impact on population health of public spending cuts in the UK (and please do point me in the direction of any) but an alarming report in the Lancet medical journal last month analysed the effects of austerity on the health of the Greek population. Among the findings, according to the Guardian’s report, was this:
“Suicides rose by 17% during the same period [2007-2009], and unofficial 2010 data quoted in parliament mention a 25% rise compared with 2009. The health minister reported a 40% rise in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.
‘The national suicide helpline reported that 25% of callers faced financial difficulties in 2010 and reports in the media indicate that the inability to repay high levels of personal debt might be a key factor in the increase in suicides,’ the Lancet authors write.”
Britain is not Greece. But what is happening here as the cuts start to bite? Here’s what Gooding says he observes at the Bedworth and Nuneaton Citizen’s Advice Bureau:
“We are seeing significantly more people with mental health problems who are having problems dealing with their financial and family affairs as support services are lost… Without help many people suffering from a mental health illness have difficulties completing official forms for application or renewal of benefits and other services including help with their housing costs. This can mean that benefits are stopped or suspended and can, in some circumstances, only be reinstated on an appeal that can take up to a year to be heard.”
He adds, ominously:
“The government’s proposed benefits reforms are likely to make this situation worse.”
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